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When Scott Got More Than Sue

Interview with Dale Atkins & Edythe Mencher

Disputes over inheritance can wreck family relationships. Dr. Dale Atkins (psychologist, author, TV commentator, Reform congregant) and Rabbi Edythe Mencher (clinical social work psychotherapist, author, organizational consultant) speak with the RJ editors on how to preserve sh'lom bayit (family harmony) before and after the reading of the will.

Aron: Among the many things that most of us are not prepared for is how to divide up an inheritance amicably. Too often unexpected conflicts arise that ruin sibling relationships.

Joy: I know a woman, let's call her Alice, who left school after sixth grade and started working in New York's Garment District to support her impoverished family. Her sister got married young and left home, but Alice remained with her widowed mother and gave her practically all of her earnings until Alice finally married at age 39. When her mother died, Alice learned that the entire estate had been bequeathed to her sister. She was furious, since almost all of the estate funds had accrued from her years of working-money she could have used to further her own education and enjoy her life. She contested the will in court, but lost the case. The sisters never spoke to one another again.

Dale: This is very sad, yet not such an unusual story. Most family feuds began with an inheritance dispute. In some families, generations of descendants have never met and have no idea why they don't have relationships with their cousins, aunts, and uncles. Money is usually at the root of the problem.

In the story Joy told, the aggrieved daughter expected her mother's will to acknowledge the fact that for years she had lived her own life in support of her mother's. But clearly her mother saw the situation differently. She did not feel the need to acknowledge her daughter's "sacrifice" with financial remuneration. The daughter probably felt betrayed, taken advantage of, disappointed, and angry. Unfortunately, when it comes to inheritance, what we and what our parents believe to be equitable may be very different.

Edie: It is also deeply unsettling to have one's sense of fairness betrayed by a parent. Understanding the parent's motivation in making the decision sometimes helps. It is also likely that neither of these sisters adequately understood the other's feelings.

Dale: Exactly. Consider the scenario of a sibling who decides to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. The parents resolve to give her most of the inheritance because she's struggling financially and will need the money more than her brother, who chose a lucrative profession. The brother may protest: "It is not fair that you are getting the lion's share of the estate when Mom and Dad paid all your bills for years." He likely feels that, in some way, he is being "punished" for pursuing a financially remunerative and perhaps more stressful career.

I know a man who was expected to practice law even though he wanted to do something different with his life. Despite his financial success, he resented his parents for forcing him into this choice while his unpressured sister pursued her chosen field. His resentment only grew when his sister received an outsized share of the estate, because their parents determined that "he would always have money as an attorney."

Edie: Such inequities run through our biblical tradition. Repeatedly, the younger child becomes the favored one who gains special blessing and inheritance, although the prevailing custom of the period was to bestow privilege on the eldest child. For example, a young Jacob, just slightly younger than his twin brother Esau, uses his cunning and his mother's help in wresting his father's blessings away from Esau. Much later, on his deathbed, Jacob gathers Joseph and his brothers close, gives his impressions of each, and leaves a double inheritance to Joseph by counting Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manassah, as if they were his own sons. Jacob is repeating the same kind of favoritism he had accorded to Joseph-the very behavior which led Joseph's brothers to become so envious and resentful of Joseph that they sold him into slavery.

Joy: Why does a pattern of unjust favoritism appear time and again in our biblical stories?

Edie: There are many different explanations. Biblical scholar Tamara Eskenazi says these biblical stories are a way of "restoring hope and providing healing to a people whose world had become undone after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the exile that followed." Choosing the younger son to inherit power and position offered the disenfranchised Israelites hope; if they maintained faith, God would return them to their rightful, secure, sovereign home. Another explanation for the reversal of traditional inheritance practices is to send the message that change is possible. And that brings us to the third message: While we might strive for justice, we can learn even from being treated unfairly how to manage disappointment and hurt. By growing in empathy and self control, a legacy of greater love and maturity may be ours no matter what we are bequeathed by parents. On Jacob's deathbed, the grown siblings in the Joseph story are challenged to use the forgiveness of one another which they achieved in their lifetime to manage this new, painful provocation differently.

That is not to say that Judaism condones the practice of purposely bestowing an unjust inheritance. Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud (page 10b) states: "A man should never single out one son among his others, for on account of a sela weight of silk (the coat of many colors) that Jacob gave Joseph in excess of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him, and the matter resulted in our forefather's exile in Egypt."

Joy: Are wills sometimes reflections of parental judgment of their children?

Dale: Very often wills are used as a measure of performance. The parent is sending a message, sometimes from the grave: "You did this," or "You didn't do that," or "Everything was fine until you married that girl." Sometimes-because neither the parents nor children ever wanted to broach uncomfortable subjects-it's only when the will is read that a son or daughter discovers that one or both parents harbored such unspoken resentments.

Also, many adult children interpret the will as a kind of final report card. You know, "How did I do, in my mother's or father's eyes? Did I make the grade-A, B, C, D, or F?"

Sometimes having such expectation leads to a positive outcome. A woman I know knew that one of her daughters coveted her grandmother's diamond necklace, but this mother would never let her wear it because "she loses everything." The matter was never discussed, but after the mother died her will specified that the necklace go to that daughter, who interpreted this decision as her mother's way of finally validating her as a responsible adult.

But much of the time, the "report card" perspective is fraught with problems. If one sibling is chosen as executor, the others may construe this as a statement about who their parents perceived as the most competent and a judgment about their not having measured up. The situation becomes more complicated when the executor is younger than other siblings or when the chosen one lords his/her power as executor over brothers and sisters.

Edie: Very often, before the will is read, a deeply alienated child who felt mistreated and may have even stopped seeing his parents may still cling to the hope that he will be rewarded with a significant inheritance as reparations for his suffering and as acknowledgment that he had been loved after all. If, it turns out, he's bequeathed less than his siblings, he may feel betrayed by both parents and the siblings who allegedly failed to act as advocates on his behalf-an expectation that mystifies his siblings.

Aron: To avoid fairness and validation problems, should a will simply stipulate: "Whatever I have will be divided equally"?

Dale: That still doesn't guarantee that the children will perceive the will as fair. If one sibling, usually a daughter, has been taking care of an infirm parent for years, she may expect a monetary reward, and feel hurt if the parent fails to account for her extra effort. Yet if the parent does reward the dutiful daughter with a disproportionate share, her siblings may protest: "It was her choice to take care of Mom, and doesn't make up for a lifetime of being part of a family in which everything was always equal."

Edie: Paradoxically, the sibling who remains close to the parent often does not feel she is the favored child. A parent may take for granted the devoted daughter who visits her in the nursing home every day. Then, on that rare occasion when her brother walks in, the overjoyed mom announces, "Oh, my son is here, he visits!" The daughter may hope that such imbalance will be corrected in her inheritance, although typical patterns of family interaction tend to persist, even at the end of life.

Dale: If the parent expressed heartfelt appreciation for the devoted daughter in life-"Thank you, I'm so grateful you are here, having you wash my hair makes me feel so good…."-the objects of inheritance would mean much less to her. She might still want the money or the diamond ring, but the possessions wouldn't be invested with so much emotion. The caregiver might think, "It really mattered to Mom that I was there for her every day, though my brother was always her favorite. He and I can work it out."

With a lot of effort, adult siblings can forge a new relationship after their parents are gone. They don't have to perpetuate what was done to them by their parents.

Aron: If adult siblings have been very close before their parent dies, are they immune from inheritance wars?

Dale: They're not immune, because, in the end, a simple request can spark a conflict. For example, a mother I knew asked her two daughters, who were quite close, to sit with her in the hospital and discuss who was going to get every piece of valuable jewelry she had, item by item. At one point the mother said to one daughter, "You always liked that pin." The daughter replied, "Yes, I did," and the other daughter quickly chimed in, "You know, my daughter loves that pin." To avoid a fight, the first daughter asked her sister, "How would you feel if I kept it and then passed it on to your daughter?" That solution short-circuited what might have become a sore point between the two sisters. Had the first sister said, "But I like that pin and I want my daughter-in-law to have it," it might have initiated an emotional tug of war. It doesn't take much for things to go wrong.

Edie: That reminds me of the story about King Solomon being asked to judge a dispute between two women who claimed to be the mother of the same baby. The wise king ruled that the baby should be cut in half. When the real mother cried out, "Let her have the baby," King Solomon knew that she was telling the truth.

We ought not to confuse love with possessing. Relinquishing something we desire may be the best way to express true love of a parent. Yes, we may feel for the moment that we need to have a particular object because it is valuable or a symbolic reminder of our relationship with that parent, but there is no greater tribute to one's love of a mother or father than demonstrating generosity and maintaining harmonious ties with siblings after the parents' deaths.

Joy: What can parents do to try to prevent inheritance issues from arising?

Dale: They can write an ethical will, a final personal message or document that spells out a person's thoughts, memories, values, advice, life lessons, and perhaps hopes for the future. Another approach is writing a letter to each child, concentrating on what you admire about him/her, the accomplishments you're proud of. Recall a story that makes you feel warm and connected to your child. Children of any age need to be reminded that their parents notice them in loving ways. Even if you've been habitually critical or judgmental, use this opportunity to express unconditional approval. Make this letter an act of love.

Edie: Writing such a letter during one's lifetime endows it with additional potency. In essence, that's what both the biblical Jacob and Moses did before their deaths: They spoke eloquently to those gathered around them-Jacob to his sons, Moses before the whole Israelite community. Doing this not only allows for repair and reconciliation, but creates new memories that can sustain a mourner during the time of grief and beyond.

Dale: The same principle applies when it comes to bequeathing objects such as money, furniture, and jewelry. It's much better to share your distribution plan openly and directly with your children. You might say, "Please understand that we really tried to be thoughtful in writing the will," and then give them insight into your thought process. Also, be sure to ask each of your children, "I'd like to know what objects you would like, and when." Don't assume you know what your sons and daughters desire; very often you'll be surprised.

One woman I know had all of her children come to her apartment and pull a number out of a hat to determine the order in which they could choose what they wanted. If you got number one and your first choice was the big green vase, you got the vase. You could also trade it later. Someone else I know had everyone prioritize what they wished for in a private note. The objects were then laid out, and each person talked about why this or that meant so much.

Joy: When talking about dividing up objects among siblings, is it advantageous for all the family members to be present?

Dale: Yes, but you can't always do it. If the adult children aren't talking, it's going to be hard. In any case, it's a good idea to ask loved ones to give you a better sense of what they want and why. There's no guarantee, though, that in doing so you'll avert potential problems. I once went to a funeral where one of the adult siblings was late. He called to say he had car trouble. Do you know where he really was?

Edie: He was getting the will?

Dale: No. He was getting loot from the house.

Edie: So much of this sort of behavior can be traced to anxiety over whether we are getting-or will end up with-our fair share of love, power, or possessions. Much as parents can make a difference, anyone who has ever had two children knows that lavishing the older sibling with praise and presents will not prevent him from grabbing everything out of his little brother's hands; nor will any amount of admonition or providing similar presents stop the younger sibling from thinking his older brother's toys are better.

Still, while such rivalries may be natural, they do not necessarily lead to irreversible relationships. In the Torah, Jacob and Esau spend many years living apart, fearing that one will kill the other because of the trickery Jacob used to win their father's blessing. When they finally come together again, Jacob brings gifts of appeasement. Esau protests: "I have enough, my brother. Keep your gifts for yourself." But Jacob urges him to accept the presents, adding "Looking upon your face is like seeing a face of God."

What's the wisdom in this? It's our hope that, by the time we die, our children won't need what we are materially bequeathing. Ideally, they will feel that nothing their parents have to give or withhold is going to complete them.

Joy: What advice can you offer adults who are experiencing inheritance-related feelings of anger, bitterness, injustice, and sadness towards parents or siblings and who want to move on but feel stuck?

Dale: This is a process that requires time, exploration, and renewal. Write your thoughts-unedited-in a journal or private computer file, taking the time needed to express the emotions and memories that come to mind. Do healthy things, such as deep breathing, visualization, meditation, and body work. Spend time in nature to get perspective on where you fit into the larger world. Read inspirational texts. Listen to music. Express yourself creatively. Pray and connect spiritually. These activities can help you to feel stronger and realize that there's more to your life than the "assessment" pronounced in the will. And perhaps sometime later, you may feel ready to initiate a constructive and empathetic discussion with your siblings about some of the issues the inheritance triggered.

Edie: Don't try to escape your painful feelings by avoiding siblings or attempting to erase all thoughts of errant parents-in practicing "avoidance" you'll just stay mired in resentment and anger.

And, however hard it seems, work to control your impulse to lash out at those you resent. This is the lesson of the Cain and Abel story. When God favored Abel's sacrifices over Cain's, God said to Cain: "Why are you so distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is towards you; you can be its master" (Genesis 4:6-7). Yet, soon after, in a jealous rage, Cain kills his brother, for which God makes Cain a "ceaseless wanderer on earth." Sibling rivalry is natural, but it doesn't have to lead to disastrous consequences.

Aron: What is the best outcome one can hope for?

Dale: The ideal is when parents truly believe they have given their children the best of themselves, and their children truly believe they've inherited the best of their parents. There are aspects of my mother and father that both my sister and I have inherited/internalized that we are both proud of in ourselves and in each other.

If you believe you've had the opportunity to take the best of your parents and make that who you are, then you've truly honored your parents' legacy. Even if your parents were people who thrived on divisiveness and conflict, your approaching life differently-not behaving as your parents did-can be a positive way of addressing their legacy. You select what works best for you in your life. As an adult you have that choice.

Edie: A woman I knew in her early 40s had cancer that no longer was responding to treatment. Her nine-year-old daughter was watching a television show in which the mother character had died. In a scene occurring months after the death, the children were laughing and having fun with their father. After the show ended, the mother put her arm around her daughter and said, "You know, Amanda, kids can be happy again even after their parent dies, and that's what I want most for you." Some months later, when it was clear to all that her death was imminent, she managed to join the family at the dinner table. One of the children started to cry. "Yes, it is very sad to know we will not be together like this again," the mother acknowledged. "But for right now, let's all go up to my bedroom, because it will be more comfortable for me there. Let's eat dinner backwards, starting with dessert. And though this is not the way we wish things were, let's keep making special memories during the time we're all still together." While facing her own death, she had the presence of mind to say: I don't want you to feel bound to me in guilt and endless sorrow; I want to free you to joy. And I want your last memories of me to be about life. Turn it upside down, and taste the sweetness first, even though bitterness might follow. She couldn't have left her family a more precious legacy.